Panel flips blue af­ter 26 years full of Repub­li­cans

8 Democrats are swept into of­fice to over­take ma­jor­ity

The Dallas Morning News - - Metro & State - By RE­BEKAH ALLEN Austin Bureau re­bekah.allen@dal­las­news.com

AUSTIN — For 26 un­in­ter­rupted years, all 14 elected judges on Texas’ 5th Dis­trict Court of Ap­peals were Repub­li­cans, earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing one of the most con­ser­va­tive courts in the state.

But that changed dra­mat­i­cally Tues­day, when vot­ers swept eight Democrats into of­fice, over­tak­ing the ma­jor­ity. Only eight of the seats, which come with a six-year term, were up for elec­tion. The other six will be up in 2020.

Dal­las at­tor­ney Tom Melsheimer, who reg­u­larly prac­tices be­fore the 5th Dis­trict Court, said the re­mak­ing of the bench was the part of Texas’ “blue wave” that at­tracted the least at­ten­tion but yielded the most eye­pop­ping trans­for­ma­tion.

The court hears civil, crim­i­nal and fam­ily ap­peals cases in Dal­las, Collin, Rock­wall, Kauf­man, Grayson and Hunt coun­ties. All 14 seats on the bench are at-large, mean­ing the same vot­ers from all of the coun­ties vote for all of the seats.

So even though Dal­las has gone blue in re­cent years, vot­ers in the more con­ser­va­tive­lean­ing coun­ties have made it dif­fi­cult for a Demo­crat to get elected.

“This time, you had tremen­dous turnout buoyed largely by the Beto O’rourke cam­paign,” Melsheimer said. “So it’s both sur­pris­ing and un­sur­pris­ing that ev­ery Demo­crat won.”

Sub­stan­tively, Melsheimer said, a Demo­crat-con­trolled court could mean more rul­ings that are def­er­en­tial to jury ver­dicts. For ex­am­ple, if a jury awards per­sonal in­jury dam­ages, some­times the award will be over­turned by the ap­pel­late court.

In crim­i­nal cases, it could mean judges more closely scru­ti­nize pros­e­cu­to­rial con­duct and ev­i­dence when asked to over­turn con­vic­tions.

Judge Ken Mol­berg, a Dal­las County judge and Demo­crat who was elected to the 5th Dis­trict over Repub­li­can Jim Pikl, said ideally the pub­lic doesn’t see any par­ti­san swing.

“Par­ti­san agen­das don’t have any place in the court,” he said.

Mol­berg ac­knowl­edged that there is a per­cep­tion that the court will be more fa­vor­able to in­di­vid­u­als rather than busi­nesses. But, he said, judges should make de­ci­sions based on the law and not their po­lit­i­cal lean­ings.

“I’ve never seen a Demo­cratic breach of con­tract case ver­sus a Repub­li­can breach of con­tract case or a Demo­cratic car wreck ver­sus a Repub­li­can car wreck,” he said. “Sure, ju­di­cial philoso­phies may come into play, but th­ese are all de­cided on a case-by-case assess­ment.”

Melsheimer said the Democrats’ sweep speaks more about the peo­ple vot­ing than it does about the qual­ity of the can­di­dates. He noted that ju­di­cial races are so far down the bal­lot that peo­ple rarely know any­thing about who is run­ning.

Mol­berg said judges run­ning for of­fice are of­ten un­com­fort­able hav­ing to run on a par­ti­san plat­form. But the other op­tions for se­lect­ing judges aren’t much bet­ter.

“If you run with­out party af­fil­i­a­tion, then you’re pretty much as­sur­ing the man or woman with the most money al­ways wins, and that’s not the best way ei­ther,” he said. “Then there’s the ap­point­ed­judge sys­tem, but is that any less par­ti­san? Well, look at [Brett] Ka­vanaugh be­ing ap­pointed to the Supreme Court.”

In ad­di­tion to Mol­berg, the other new Demo­cratic judges on the 5th Dis­trict Court are:

■ Robert Burns, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can Dou­glas Lang for chief jus­tice

■ Rob­bie Par­tida-kip­ness, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can David Evans

■ Erin Now­ell, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can Craig Stod­dart

■ Bill Ped­er­sen, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can Ja­son Boa­tright

■ Amanda Re­ichek, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can Molly Fran­cis

■ Cory Car­lyle, who beat Repub­li­can John Brown­ing for an open seat

■ Leslie Lester Os­borne, who beat sit­ting Repub­li­can El­iz­a­beth Lang Mier

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